Towel Talk: Jason Neidell – Previewing the Conference USA tournament


With the Conference USA tournament set to kick off tomorrow, head coach of the WKU soccer team Jason Neidell took time out of his packing schedule to sit down with me and recap the season as well as look ahead to this coming weekend.

Let’s start off with talking about the beginning of the season. Coming into Conference USA, in the 12 previous years of WKU soccer, all they knew was the Sun Belt. What were your expectations coming into Conference USA, and then as you went throughout the season, what became the reality? Did they meet the expectations you had before the year?
That’s a really good question. We knew that the league was definitely going to be a step up. In the old Sun Belt, you had a group of teams that was very, very competitive with each other, but that kind of fell off after the top four or five. But in Conference USA, from top to bottom, there’s very little difference. So I think the biggest challenge for us was trying to convince our players, and to teach them, that they had to step out onto the field and play from the opening whistle for a full 90 minutes. And, I think we’re still struggling a little bit in putting a full 90 minutes together. That’s been the biggest challenge, is understanding that you’ve got to compete day in and day out. There’s no breaks – no mental breaks.

Do you think the challenge that they’re still trying to find 90 minutes comes from so many years in the Sun Belt or from the youth of the team?
Both. I mean, freshman typically understand how hard…the intensity that the college game demands. But then, our returning players are used to the Sun Belt, where what we were doing at the beginning of the season…it wasn’t that we weren’t working hard. It was just there was a different level of hard work that had to go into it, and we just had to figure out what it was and how to achieve it.

Let’s do expectation vs. reality again. What were your expectations coming in with, I believe it’s 18 of the 22 athletes on the roster are underclassmen, versus what the reality was as the season went on?
I think the goal that the team set for themselves, which we (as a coaching staff) didn’t really help them with, was to qualify for the Conference USA tournament. And I think that was really kind of in line with what the coaching staff thought was a good goal and a good accomplishment for the team this year. So I think the reality was similar. We were in and out of the mix most of the season, and we ended up finishing seventh. So I think we were right on the bubble. But I think the biggest thing for me as a coach was I anticipated a higher level of play, but it was even a little bit better than what I expected.

Did you have to manage or coach this team differently, with the youth of it, than you have the past couple of years? Or even in your whole tenure here at WKU?
Yes and no. I mean, there were some times where we weren’t executing, and…I guess all coaches do this…but when things are going well, you actually need to be really hard on the team, and when things aren’t going well, you try to be a little more positive and try to coach them through it, especially because we had a young team, that held true.

You have Allie Auscherman who has been to two conference championship games – in 2011 and then last year – and then a handful of players from last year’s championship game. Specifically last year, because it’s the most recent, is that something that, making the championship game, is being talked about at all? Or, with the new conference, everything’s kind of out the window and no one’s really sure what to expect come tomorrow in Charlotte?
Well I think…well, first of all, Rice is a team we haven’t seen yet this year. So that’s a little bit of a mystery to us, obviously we played them last year (ed. note – a 0-0 draw in non-conference play at WKU) but we haven’t played them this year. Usually, when you get to a conference tournament you’ve played everyone once. So that’s kind of unusual that we only play 10 of the 14 teams. But it’s just like any tournament. You can’t really look ahead, regardless of how good you think you are. You have to take it one game at a time. We feel like if we really focus on the Rice game, and we can take care of Rice, we feel like as the tournament goes, we really like our chances – we feel like our chances improve. One, because you’re playing in a semi-final then the final and two, we feel like we’ve played more players and used our depth quite a bit more than any of the other teams in the league, and when you’ve got to play three games in five days, I think that’s a huge advantage for us, because we have played more players. But our team and our coaches…it’s a tournament. It’s survive and advance, so we have to take it one game at a time.

What have you seen from Rice on the game tape that has you 1.) comfortable going into it and 2.) uneasy going into it?
Well I think what makes us comfortable is that there is nobody in this league that is heads and tails better than anyone else. So, regardless of one seed, two seed, seven seed, eight seed…that’s out the window. We were in a team meeting yesterday, and I asked the team yesterday who they think is going to win – North Texas or Marshall? One versus Eight? And all but one player thought Marshall – the eight seed – is going to beat North Texas. The players on our team thought Marshall was the best team we’ve played this season. So that shows you how close everything is. I think that’s probably the major point; we feel like we’re good enough to play with anyone in the league, and it’s just that close. I think the things that we’ve got to be ready for is their (Rice’s) two forwards are their best players. And they play a two forward system, and two forward systems have been giving us the most trouble this year, so that’s something we’ve got to gameplan for.

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So we’ve talked a little about the season, let’s talk about some individual players. Allison Leone – a freshman, who had to fill the shoes of Nora Abolins, has done an outstanding job in her first year – top five in C-USA in shutouts and saves. You’ve said before injuries to Alex Hoefler in the preseason lead to the decision to start Leone out of the gate, but how excited are you to have her for three more years?

*Laughs* Well, we have a really really healthy tradition of great goalkeepers, and Allison is just going to fall into that line of good goalkeepers we’ve had, and she’s been tremendous this season. She’s been everything we expected and more.

If you look at the game by game boxscores, she started off real strong with a ton of shutouts, but then as conference play went on – as you’d expect with a league like C-USA, as strong as it is from top to bottom – she started to let some more goals in. Was that hard for her to start so well, and then to have goals start coming in? Did that affect her confidence at all?
She’s so level headed…she’s just…goalkeepers always tend to be a little bit strange. They tend to be a little bit strange, but Allison’s one of the more level-headed goalkeepers that I’ve been around. She gained a lot of confidence in the non-conference season, and I don’t think it’s waned at all. And, you know, the goals against  (average – GAA in your boxscore) is a team stat, it’s not a goalie stat anyway. And I think she understands that, and she’s been awesome. When we came into the season, we kind of thought she could make all the saves she was supposed to make. And, we’ve had a good season defensively, and she’s had a good season. And, she’s gone beyond that and saved some shot’s that we maybe didn’t think she’d be able to get to. But she’s made all the saves she’s supposed to make. And going in with a freshman goalkeeper, you kind of expect at least a couple of goalkeeper errors here or there, but she’s been very consistent.

Lauren Moats got off to a start out of the cannon, seemingly, it was so fast. How important was that fast start, not only for her, but for the team.
That was important for her confidence because she didn’t score a whole lot of goals last year. She had a great freshman year, but didn’t score as many in her sophomore year, so I think getting out to a fast start was really important to her confidence. And, as a team, we were looking for somebody to help us score goals this year – we only scored 17 goals last year. That’s a really really low number, and to be Sun Belt Conference champions and only scoring 17 goals was a pretty remarkable stat, and we won a lot of games 1-0. And the team was really searching for some people to pickup the load, and Iris (Dunn) actually, she didn’t score a whole lot of goals in non-conference, a lot of her goals came in conference play. So, between Iris and Moats, and we have a few other players who have picked up one or two goals each, we needed to find a way to score goals by committee, and we’ve done that.

My next question was actually going to be about Iris Dunn. She has five goals – which is second on the team (behind the seven from Moats), but they seemed very quiet, and you just said they came mostly in the C-USA schedule. Did she feel any pressure coming in to not have a sophomore slump, and what was it about the conference schedule that gave her more confidence than the non-conference?
*Laughs* Iris is just a competitor. She just keeps getting after it and keeps getting after it. And you could tell that she was frustrated early on in the season that she wasn’t scoring goals. And we just kept telling her “keep fighting, just keep fighting. You’ll get them. You’re that kind of player.” And, eventually, it kind of came around for her. And, she always seems to score really important goals. She’s not a player that, you’re in a 5-0 game and she picks up four goals, it’s a 2-1 game, and she has the game winner. She’s just that kind of player that shows up when you need her the most. We’re going to need her against Rice.

Alright. So let’s put you in my seat here. You’re an analyst for ESPNU’s post-season soccer coverage. What are the three keys for success for WKU to, not only win the game against Rice, but possibly make it to the finals, and win their first ever Conference USA tournament.
The first key is being able to take care of the “Critical 5’s”. The first and last five minutes of each half, and the first five minutes after a goal has been scored by either team. That’s going to be crucial going into our game against Rice, to kind of give us confidence and build momentum off being ready at the opening whistle.
The second thing is going to be able to play, and concentrate, for 90 minutes. Because, we’ve had moments this season – maybe because of our youth, maybe because of the level of play – but we lose our focus for five or 10 minutes, and it affects the outcome of the game. North Texas last week was a great example of that. Our game against Charlotte earlier in the season was a great example of that. If we lose focus, for just a few minutes, and it’s decisive.
And the third thing, and this goes for the Rice game, and I think as we go deeper into the tournament – hopefully our depth will be a huge bonus for us as we advance.

Thanks to coach Neidell for taking time out of his day before he and the team headed up to Charlotte. The Lady Tops and Rice will kick the tournament off tomorrow morning at 10:00 Bowling Green time.

Next: Previewing the C-USA soccer Tourney